The haunting melody heard throughout Ken Burns’ epic series The Civil War, Ashokan Farewell was, ironically enough, not a true Civil War era song at all, but was instead written by a modern-day fiddle artist named Jay Ungar in 1982. And as it turns out, the song had absolutely nothing to do with the war, but was instead composed by Ungar to express the feelings of melancholy and loss he and his wife, Molly Mason, shared each year when the summer music camp they ran near the Ashokan Reservoir, in upstate New York, shut down for the winter.
According to Ungar, who, along with his wife, belongs to a quartet called Fiddle Fever, “when I wrote the tune in 1982 I wasn't thinking about the Civil War. At the time, I had immersed myself in Scottish traditional music.” He recalls that he “composed Ashokan Farewell in 1982 shortly after the summer programs had come to an end. I was experiencing a great feeling of loss and longing for the lifestyle and the community of people that had developed at Ashokan that summer . . . I was in tears when I wrote Ashokan Farewell. I kept the tune to myself for months, slightly embarrassed by the emotions that welled up whenever I played it.”
In a video interview for the DVD release of The Civil War, Ungar describes how he came to write Ashokan Farewell
Ashokan Farewell is a tune that I wrote unintentionally, really. It was a moment of deep emotion after the summer camps at Ashokan had ended. It was the third summer, and it was an experiment every summer, you know, pulling this together. And it had been such a deeply moving experience and the community of people and the feeling of unity that we had had through music, and being away from the regular world was so important to me that when I’d gotten home, I had a sense of loss and longing; and I was looking for a Scottish lament, you know, that would express how I felt. And I couldn’t think of one, so I just started playing, and this tune came out. And it brought me to tears. And every time I played the beginning of it, for months afterward, I was brought to tears.
So, it was difficult to play it for anyone. But after a while, our band Fiddle Fever started performing it, and we eventually recorded it.
To Ungar, then, Ashokan Farewell was a very personal piece about the difficult “transition from living in the woods with a small group of people who needed little excuse to celebrate the joy of living through music and dancing, back to life as usual, with traffic, disturbing newscasts, ‘important’ telephone calls and impersonal relationships.”
But if you’ve ever heard the song without knowing its history, you’d be hard pressed to identify it as a modern composition. Ungar says that “I sometimes introduce it as a Scottish lament written by a Jewish guy from the Bronx.” Although originally from the Bronx, however, Ungar’s extensive background in traditional Scotch-Irish dance music lent his composition just the right touch to blend in perfectly with such 19th century tunes as "The Empty Chair," “Just Before The Battle, Mother,” and "Lorena."
In Ungar’s words, “when the tune came to me, it was in the mold of a traditional Scottish lament. Much of this country's traditional music, especially from the 19th century, has Scottish and Irish roots. That's why it sounds like something from the period."
The song was even played by Ungar on a 19th-century American violin, constructed by George Gemunder in 1849, whose dark, rich sound gives it a warm, viola-like texture.
No wonder that Ken Burns went crazy for Ashokan Farewell after hearing an arrangement of the tune in 1984 on Fiddle Fever's album, Waltz of the Wind. Burns rushed an existing solo version of the song, played by Matt Glaser, into his then-current project, the PBS film Huey Long. When it came time to use the song in The Civil War, however, Burns took more time, bringing Ungar and other artists into the studio to record a number of different arrangements, supplementing the original Fiddle Fever version that had first caught Burns’ attention. That first recording can be heard at the very beginning of the series, though, and again most notably during the reading of Sullivan Ballou’s moving letter to his wife. Together with the other versions, Ashokan Farewell is played 25 times throughout the series, and can be heard for a total of 59 minutes, 33 seconds in the eleven-hour series.
Since it first aired on the PBS series more than a decade ago, Ashokan Farewell has achieved substantial recognition and popularity in its own right. The hauntingly beautiful melody is now played at weddings, funerals, and graduations, whether by people who know the origins of the tune or not. In one particularly touching, and recent, such event, a blogger describes his daughter playing the tune at a memorial service for one of her teachers
One last "daughter" note. One of the graduation weekend traditions of my daughter's high school is an awards luncheon attended by 1,500 or so family members of the 200 graduates. Before the ceremony, the school's headmaster, who is retiring this year, asked our daughter to play, as a form of benediction to the event and to his tenure with his last graduating class, a favorite fiddle piece of his, Ashokan Farewell.
Two weeks ago, my daughter played the same tune at the memorial service of a teacher who inspired her the most during her high school career: a gentle, aging English teacher who has inspired decades of the school's students and whose life came to an end after a long struggle with cancer. He loved playing the banjo and after hearing my daughter play the fiddle at a school assembly her freshman year, he invited her to take part in the informal bluegrass and folk music jam sessions that he and some other faculty members enjoyed. He loved the tune Ashokan Farewell. And, he especially loved the simple, yet emotional way my daughter performs it.
The first time I heard the tune -- 16 years ago on the PBS series -- I teared up. On Saturday, as it was played by my daughter as a farewell to her retiring headmaster, to her friends and to the faculty and staff she has grown to love, and as a final farewell to the distinguished gentle man who inspired in her a love of literature that will last a lifetime, I had tears streaming down my cheek. Afterwards, several people came up to me and asked about the tune's origin -- assuming it was southern in origin. (Which, again, makes sense, as its Scottish style is a direct influence on the Appalachian sounds that would eventually blend into what is now called folk or roots or old time music.) However, in one of those coincidences of fate, while named for a community in New York state, the tune was first recorded for the PBS series in a studio that is located just a few miles from my daughter's school -- in the same stunning and historic valley she (and I) have come to love. So -- in a beautiful metaphor for my daughter -- it was from that valley the tune began its journey into the world and into the hearts of so many it has touched. www.rexblog.com/2006/05/29.
- The Music of The Civil War, (http:www.pbs.org/civilwar/filmmusic.html)
- Ashokan Farewell FAQ (http://www.jayandmolly.com/ashokanfaq.shtml)
- Rex Hammock's Weblog (http:www.rexblog.com/2006/05/29)